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November 02, 2023

Pa. lawmakers take bipartisan first step toward repealing state death penalty

The bill, passed Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee, would eliminate the practice entirely

A state House panel passed a bill to repeal Pennsylvania's death penalty with bipartisan support on Tuesday. While that's the first step in passing any new law, the occasion prompted the bill's prime sponsor to declare it historic.

State Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he has introduced the same legislation every session since he first took office in 2017.

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With a new Democratic majority in the House, Rabb said it was the first time his bill had ever been put up for a vote. It's likely the first time in decades that legislation to repeal the death penalty has made it to the House floor, he said.

While Republican support for the bill in the committee was scant, with only Republican Rep. Paul Schemel of Franklin County breaking the party line vote, Rapp described guarded optimism that views on capital punishment have shifted enough that the legislation could make it to Gov. Josh Shapiro's desk. 

"Even Republicans who supported repeal of the death penalty were not allowed to advocate for this because the chair of the committee for the past 12 years of Republican rule ever refused to bring this bill up," Rabb said, adding that it's time for Pennsylvania lawmakers to have a public conversation about the death penalty.

In a press conference following the vote, advocates of abolishing the death penalty urged other lawmakers to support the legislation.

"Government is so frequently inept, it truly does boggle my mind why anyone thinks that the death penalty can be administered properly," said Demetrius Minor, national manager of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. He noted the system is so unreliable that 190 people have been released so far from death rolls nationwide due to wrongful convictions.  

Pennsylvania has had a moratorium on executions since 2015 and presently has 128 people who are sentenced to death. Since 1986, 11 people on Pennsylvania's death row have been exonerated.

"If you're a fiscal conservative, it is hard to justify our Commonwealth spending $1 billion over the past 35 years putting people on death row who will not actually be executed in light of the ongoing moratoriums put in place by our prior and current governors since 2015," Rabb told fellow members of the Judiciary Committee.

Rabb also noted the long history of racial injustice in capital punishment and the lack of evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. 

"If you are skeptical of big government, do you believe it has earned the moral authority to kill its own citizens? And if you believe that retribution isn't fair, good policy, what would you say to all of those Pennsylvanians who were supposed to be executed, but weren't because they were exonerated?" Rabb asked.

Schemel said he supports repealing the death penalty because he promotes a holistic view of life from beginning to end and believes the lives of the innocent and guilty have value. 

"Dignity is not something that we earn, therefore it is not something we can lose. Every human life has dignity. Even guilty human life has dignity," Schemel said.

Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin), who is the ranking Republican member of the committee and former chairperson, said his views on the death penalty have shifted over the years. While he would not support the bill, he said he believes the Legislature should examine what repealing capital punishment would mean to the justice system and whether it would affect the ability of prosecutors to plea bargain with defendants charged with murder. 

"It's a legitimate conversation that I believe would be beneficial for the entire Commonwealth to engage in," Kauffman said.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote. The House's next voting session is set for Nov. 13.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.